WASHINGTON — Sen. Richard Burr is in the awkward position of investigating whether his ally in the White House colluded with Russia to meddle in a U.S. election.
As the Republican chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, the North Carolina Republican is overseeing an effort to assess Russian interference with the 2016 presidential election that elevated President Donald Trump to the White House. Burr had previously assured North Carolina voters that there was no “separation” between him and Trump, and he worked as a national security adviser to the presidential campaign.
“This is in some ways quite unusual,” said Max Bergmann, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and director of the organization’s Moscow Project.
“In most cases, the party in power of the president isn’t going to be inclined to open up this sort of oversight investigation directly into the president.”
Burr doesn’t appear to relish the situation. Back on election night 2004, when Burr first won his North Carolina seat, he said, “‘I hope they don’t put me on the Intelligence Committee,” his top strategist for that campaign, Paul Shumaker, told The New York Times.
Here he is, more than 14 years later, pledging to maintain a bipartisan investigation into one of the most politically divisive fights in recent decades.
He acknowledges that his legacy is on the line. “We’ll be judged at the end of this on the product that we produce,” he told CBS earlier this month. “We’ll also be judged on the process that we chose.
His balancing act involves maintaining a civil relationship with Virginia Sen. Mark Warner, the top Democrat on the committee.
Their work has long been billed as the most bipartisan Russia investigation underway on Capitol Hill, with Burr and Warner consistently espousing their commitment to working across the aisle. If they can stick together to issue joint conclusions, their final report will have far more clout than it would if the parties split on their findings.
Many Democrats have been wary that Burr, given his ties to Trump, can’t lead an impartial investigation.
Trump in 2017 urged Senate Republicans, including Burr, to end the panel’s investigation, The New York Times reported. Burr said he replied that “when we have exhausted everybody we need to talk to, we will finish.”
While Warner and Burr have worked to publicly convey their bipartisan bona fides during two years of deliberations that take place largely behind closed doors, a public rift earlier this month hinted at divisions that could threaten their goal of finding common ground.
Burr said in the CBS interview that his committee, which has been investigating election meddling since early 2017, hasn’t found anything suggesting “collusion” between Trump’s campaign and Russia.
Trump amplified Burr’s comments on Twitter, writing, “The Senate Intelligence Committee: THERE IS NO EVIDENCE OF COLLUSION BETWEEN THE TRUMP CAMPAIGN AND RUSSIA!”
Warner fired back in the unusual public spat about the committee’s confidential work. “Respectfully, I disagree,” Warner told CNN, noting that he didn’t want to reach any conclusions until the investigation wrapped up.
That’s not likely to happen for a while.
The committee is inching toward issuing its final report, but with no firm deadline. It was initially expected to wrap up by the end of 2017, but some observers now predict that it’ll come out after Special Counsel Robert Mueller issues his findings.
The committee has interviewed over 200 witnesses and reviewed more than 300,000 pages of documents, according to a Democratic committee aide. Senators have planned five reports, two of which have already been released. The next — looking at how the Obama administration handled the threat — is expected to come out soon, the aide said. Another will look at Russia’s influence campaign on social media.
The most anticipated report is expected to address whether there was collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign. That could prove to be a dicey topic, as evidenced by the recent Burr-Warner divide.
Burr’s remarks came as a surprise because he made them publicly, said the Democratic committee aide, although people weren’t surprised that he held those views. “That does not mean that everything is hunky dory, as it were,” the aide said, but staffers are taking things one step at a time. “The work continues.”
A Burr spokeswoman did not respond to a request for comment for this story.
Burr’s role is sometimes contrasted with that Sam Ervin, another North Carolina senator. Ervin led the Select Committee on Presidential Campaign Activities — known as the Senate Watergate Committee, in the 1970s. That committee’s revelations helped fuel the House impeachment proceedings against Nixon ahead of his resignation. But in that case, Ervin, a Democrat, was leading the charge against a Republican president.
Burr shrugs off the suggestion that the committee’s work might not remain bipartisan as it delves into thornier topics like possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Russian officials.
“It’s sort of why I get baffled when I get asked the question, ‘Does this fall apart at the end?’” he told CBS. “It’s hard for me to believe this could fall apart at the easiest point, which is: ‘Here are the facts. Write the report.'”
The reputations of Burr, Warner — and perhaps even the Senate — could be on the line.
“I think it’s very important that they get it right,” said former Arizona Democratic Sen. Dennis DeConcini, who served as chairman of the Intelligence Committee in the 1990s. “If they don’t get it right, it’ll be a discredit to the entire Senate and the process,” he added.
He pointed to the partisan rift on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence under the leadership of Republican Chairman Devin Nunes. Republicans and Democrats on that committee offered conflicting reports, despite initial calls for bipartisanship.
“The Senate Intelligence Committee historically has not been partisan, where the Judiciary Committee is and has been,” DeConcini said. DeConcini said Burr’s public comments about collusion appeared to be the first indication that the chairman “didn’t want to cooperate or do it jointly with Warner.”
He added, “I hope that this is just a bump in the road or hiccup.”
Bergmann of the Center for American Progress agreed that the stakes are high for the Senate committee, even if the release of the Mueller report will likely get more attention.
“It helps create a narrative of what happened,” he said, pointing to the committee’s blockbuster 2012 report on CIA torture as an example of how the panel can shed light on topics that are important to Americans.
In regard to the Russia investigation, “having a really detailed, thorough Senate Intelligence investigation that is sort of pulling no punches, I think, is really important,” Bergmann said.
Robin Bravender is the Washington Bureau Chief for The Newsroom network, of which NC Policy Watch is a member.